Rage is a powerful motivator in American politics, capable of boosting voter motivation and filling campaign coffers, according to political science and public policy professors who have studied the matter.
They say that stoking voter anger helped elevate Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, and helped Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives in 2018.
“Politicians themselves are deliberately seeking to make Americans angry and they do this because when people are angry, they tend to vote loyally for their own party's slate of candidates up and down the ballot,” says Steven Webster, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University.
“So, put simply, an angry voter is a loyal voter and because politicians are concerned with getting reelected, they make us angry to further that goal,” he added.
The strategic use of anger is not new, according to Webster, who says it’s been marshalled in politics since the country’s founding. Webster explored the phenomenon in his book, “American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics.”
“Trump is certainly a very blatant, for lack of a better word, example of politicians’ use of anger,” he says. “Democratic politicians use anger just as much as Republicans do. … In fact, Democrats are quite angry right now. It's kind of ironic, Joe Biden has this whole thing of saying he wants to restore the soul of America, but Joe Biden and his allies are still eliciting anger at Donald Trump, because anger is an action-oriented motivation.”
A recent poll finds that 61% of Biden supporters say they would be angry if Trump wins, while 37% of Trump supporters say they would be angry if Biden wins.
“If you can get people to feel angry, that's a very useful political tool if the balance is thrown to the side of going with this guttural feeling rather than your rational thoughts,” says Bonnie Stabile, professor of public policy at George Mason University.
While stirring up and harnessing anger might be good for political campaigns, the academics say it can ultimately erode Americans’ trust in the federal government and, more broadly, faith in the democratic system.
A Pew Research poll finds that only 1 in 5 U.S. adults, just 20%, trust the federal government to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time.
“Trusting government tends to facilitate a culture in which we can have bipartisan cooperation,” Webster says. “Trusting government perpetuates support for the social welfare programs that seek to make society better off, things like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. And so, without this trust in government, it's really hard to sustain things that we’ve really come to take for granted as Americans.”
Public trust in the national government has been in decline for decades.
A 2016 poll found that 83% of respondents were dissatisfied with how the federal government works, and 32% said they were not just dissatisfied, but also angry.
“Republicans think the federal government's doing too much and the Democrats think the federal government's not doing enough,” Webster says. “And so you have Democrats and Republicans being angry with the government, but for very different reasons.”
He says this anger and distrust can lead to the erosion of basic democratic values.
“When Americans are angry, they're more likely to say that those who disagree with them politically are less intelligent than they are, they're more likely to say that those who support the other party are a threat to the country's well-being,” Webster says. “This political anger moves political disagreements into personal disagreements and personal evaluations and when the political becomes personal like this, you have a whole bunch of problems.”
Economic inequality is exacerbating this divide between people as Americans increasingly spend less time together in public spaces, Stabile said.
“People can avoid each other,” she says. “The anger is really stoked when … there's no balance between this shared consensus of what does it mean to be a citizen and what's our common space that we exist in.”
Webster doesn’t see a way for Americans to break free of this anger trap as long as politicians continue to actively rile up their supporters – and voters remain receptive to rage-filled messaging.